Teachers’ Movements Gain Community Support by Centering Social Justice

The teachers’ strike wave began in West Virginia and spread across several red states, and then into blue states with work stoppages in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland.

Leading teacher militant Gillian Russom has been a high school history teacher in Los Angeles for 18 years. She’s been an activist-member of the United Teachers Los Angeles for most of that time and currently serves on the union’s board of directors. She is a contributor to the book Education and Capitalism, published by Haymarket Books.

She spoke to Truthout about the causes of the new teachers’ movement and how labor activists must move toward social justice unionism. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ashley Smith: The teacher’s strike wave has swept the country and looks like it’s becoming a national movement. What’s behind this?

Gillian Russom: There are a few factors that come to mind. One reason, which I didn’t know until recently, is that teachers have had the greatest downward mobility since the 1970s. It’s a profession that’s in crisis; that has experienced a devaluation over a long period of time.

Another one is how the recession impacted education and teachers. States and school boards imposed austerity on public education. People saw co-workers laid off, class size increased and relentless cuts to programs. As a result, the downward mobility we’ve experienced over decades got dramatically worse since 2008.

On top of these, there’s the experience of being a teacher in an economic crisis and what you see and experience. I remember West Virginia teacher Emily Comer talking about teachers witnessing the impact of the opioid crisis, job losses, poverty and homelessness on their students and families.

We teachers see these problems on a daily basis in our students’ lives, and because of the nature of the profession, we are made to feel like we have to solve them and make things tolerable for the kids in our classes. Eventually, you reach a breaking point when it’s no longer possible to cope, and you start demanding accountability from school boards and the government.

All of this is happening amid an official political debate in which neither party has been speaking for us. Both have carried through attacks on public education and the media has parroted their positions, relentlessly targeting teachers as the source of the problem. There was the Time Magazine cover with former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools Michelle Rhee declaring that the whole problem in education was the “bad apples” (bad teachers) that should be fired.

All of this public discourse was at odds with our experience as teachers. We know politicians’ so-called solutions of austerity and scapegoating teachers has only made things worse. We also feel that our immediate community actually supports us. Over the last few years, we have started to speak for ourselves and put forward our solution to the crisis in public education.

We tried to do all sorts of things before we started this strike wave. In West Virginia, where it all started, teachers said, “We tried lobbying; we wrote letters; we organized town hall meetings, but nobody listened.” So, it finally boiled over and produced this enormous explosion of strikes in which we took matters in our hands and have started to force on the system solutions in the interests of teachers, students and the whole working class.

Let’s delve a bit deeper into what the ruling class and its two parties have done to education. How have their neoliberal policies created the conditions that led to this strike wave?

In general, the state and billionaires have systematically tried to impose the logic of the market onto public education. They want to reduce the state’s responsibility and fiscal support to schools as much as they can. So, they have tried to privatize through charters, increased class sizes and cuts to budgets for everything from salaries to teaching materials.

We saw the devastating impact of all this in videos from the teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma showing that teachers have no materials for their classrooms because their budgets have been cut so much. In blue states, we’re experiencing the same cuts in funding. For example, California’s cuts to taxes on the wealthy and corporations over decades has led us to drop to 41st in the nation in per-pupil funding despite being the fifth-largest economy in the world.

So, austerity and privatization are the biggest causes of teachers’ grievances. I once did a diagram for a meeting that represented these two issues as two sharks devouring public schools: The two reinforce each other.

First, they starve schools of funding, then claim that they are failing; finally, proposing charter schools as a solution. Privatization then drains even more funds from the schools. A study by In the Public Interest documented that charters drain $57.3 million a year from public education in Oakland, California. The same is true for countless cities in California. These charters are privately run, unaccountable to the public and almost entirely non-union.

Teachers across the country are beginning to realize that these two sharks are our enemies, and we are taking action against both of them. In West Virginia, they first struck against budget cuts to public education, and then they came back this year and struck to stop a bill proposing a new charterization program.

At the root of austerity and privatization is a business model for education. This model disciplines educators to teach to the test and ties funding to those results. That testing regime has, in fact, become a big for-profit business in its own right.

This model is ruining teachers’ and students’ experience of school. We did a study in LA that revealed that a student will take over 100 standardized tests by the time they get to sixth grade. This testing regime reinforces teachers’ feeling of being disrespected and powerless, because we have to teach to a test that we didn’t choose and don’t believe in.

It also introduces a big contradiction between our assumed mission of developing young people and the reality narrowing education down to test results. This becomes really painful for teachers as we watch our students stress out, cry about tests and hate school because of this business model of education that we have no voice in.

How do institutionalized sexism, racism and anti-immigrant policies impact the education system?

First let’s talk about the sexism in the education system. Under capitalism, the rearing of a new generation of workers is privatized and disproportionately borne by women, who are not paid for their labor in the home.

This system of social reproduction shapes the education system, which for the capitalist economy, trains and develops the skills of the next generation of workers. Women are the majority of teachers that do this work, and that work has highly gendered and sexist dynamics.

We are expected to sacrifice everything for our students, help them with all the social trauma they enter school with, meet their huge needs, and help them overcome enormous skill gaps. We are expected to do this even as austerity and privatization are wrecking our schools.

We’re expected to make up for this by doing more unpaid work. Many studies show that teachers, again mostly women, do more unpaid overtime than any other profession. That’s rooted in the very gendered expectation that when it comes to the children, women just have to take care of them.

Further, conditions for teachers worsen for those responsible for educating our youngest children. They experience an even lower level of respect for their work. In LA, one of the things we won for the first time ever in our strike is a duty-free lunch period for teachers in early education centers. They had no lunch period! Those teachers are almost all women in LA.

During our strike, I remember the DJ at one of our rallies played Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” and teachers started dancing in the streets. Women haven’t been respected for the work that we do, and the strike was when we finally started demanding it. That was why it was so cool to see women in the forefront of these strikes.

We also see the same patterns in terms of racist and anti-immigrant structures in the education system. Our schools reproduce all these hierarchies. That’s why the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminalization of Black students has come to the forefront through the Black Lives Matter at School movement.

In LA, they pull students out of class and use metal detectors to scan them as if they are suspects. We’ve had parents being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they are dropping off their kids at school. These arrests actually violate federal policies that state that schools are supposed to be safe spaces and that ICE can’t come into them.

But they patrol outside, arrest parents and then kids walk into schools having lost a parent. What do our schools do about that? We’re not even equipped to have those conversations, never mind the actual support system that students and families need when they’re going through this trauma.

We’ve also seen an enormous attack on Black teachers in particular. In Chicago in the last 18 years, the number of Black teachers has dropped from 40 percent to 23 percent of the teaching staff. This racist discrimination is built into the neoliberal program.

Black teachers, especially veteran ones with connections to struggle and militancy, are a threat to our bosses’ ability to carry through austerity and privatization. They would rather bring in young, white teachers with no union or movement experience; they see them as much more malleable. That’s why Black Lives Matter at School put forward a demand to hire more Black teachers.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike in 2012 set a precedent for unions taking up demands for broader social and economic justice. How have unions done this in the teachers’ strike wave?

Some unions have taken up these issues, but it’s been uneven. The LA strike gives us something to build on. We added demands that addressed questions of racism and anti-immigrant policies.

We included demands like stopping random searches, having green space at every school, support for immigrant families dealing with deportation, and many more. The entire time we were bargaining our contract we were told that these were outside the scope of bargaining, which is legally the case.

Right before we struck, though, we had to take those demands off the table in order to move toward impasse and strike. In order to legally strike, you can’t have “permissive subjects of bargaining” on the table.

So, we took those demands off the table, but said we’re going to fight for them anyway. Once we were on strike, we put them back on the table as conditions for returning to our classrooms. I was honestly not sure if it was going to work and wasn’t sure that the bargaining team would stick to the demands and keep them on the table.

But they did, and we won things on all of those demands. We must now build on this victory. We need to argue that not just teachers’ unions, but all unions must raise these kinds of common good demands.

It is essential for unions to do this because the extent to which you can frame your strike around social justice is directly related to the kind of public support you’re going to get. In LA, I was amazed about the extent to which we were able to do that.

We were so successful because we spent so much time framing the message around economic and social justice. We learned so much from CTU, who led with the slogan of “the schools our students deserve.” So, when we went on strike, the bosses’ attempt to say that “strikes hurt kids, and you will just harm the students” lasted only a couple of days because it was so obvious that our strike was about the needs of young people that have been ignored by the system for decades.

They couldn’t get away with that argument anymore. It was laughable. Our city, which is majority Black and Brown, rallied to our side because we were fighting for demands that they supported. That’s why and how we won. We were leading the whole city.

Our bosses were terrified by this and wanted to end that strike so damn bad that they gave us a bunch of stuff that they did not want to give us.

The strike proved two things to me. First, that we have power as workers because the bosses depend on our labor, and when we don’t work, the system shuts down; our ability to do that is the only reason we were listened to. Second, we have to go on strike in a way that wins broader working-class support. If you do that, you can amplify your power and can be decisive in how successful you are.

This is not yet common sense in the union movement. In some cases, even in this strike wave, unions haven’t raised social justice demands. That’s a mistake because it weakens our ability to fight.

In Kentucky, for example, the teachers’ union protested over bread-and-butter demands about school funding and wages but failed to oppose a racist, anti-gang bill that will increase youth incarceration that disproportionately affects Black students. Not taking up that bill meant Black teachers, students and the broader Black community did not see the union as fighting for them.

None of this is easy. Think about Arizona: One of the things that they really need to do to embody social justice unionism is to present an immigrant rights platform as teachers. Raising demands about immigrants in Arizona won’t make them immediately popular because there is so much racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. So that will be a harder fight to carry in places like Arizona, but just as important, if not more important. If we don’t make social justice unionism central and raise common good demands and demands for especially oppressed groups, we become isolated and are not looked upon as leading all workers and oppressed people.